July 2020 meeting: How health drives characters’ actions and plots in Austen’s novels

July 29, 2020

JASACT-ers were thrilled to be able to meet again this month, having “met” only once via email, since our Emma movie outing in February. With the National Library Friends’ room still closed, we gratefully accepted a member’s invitation to meet in her home.

Our July topic was: Explore the behaviours, motivations and impact of characters whose health drives their actions. Members took a wide variety of approaches in their research, some focusing on specific characters, some on particular health issues, and some more generally. The end result was a fascinating meeting, with a few challenging ideas put forward!

Many uses of illness

We started with the member who had taken an overall look at the topic. She noted that there were many uses of illness in Austen’s novels, adding by way of introduction that illness in this period of history often, of itself, creates tension because of the ever-present possibility of death. She then listed the ways in which Austen used illness:

  • Social manipulation: Mrs Churchill’s power over Frank Churchill; Mary Musgrove’s in relation, particularly, to Anne but more widely; Mrs Bennet; Mr Woodhouse.
  • Plot device: Illness brought several characters to Bath resulting in moving the plot forward (Mrs Smith who turned the tables on William Elliot; Admiral Croft’s role in Persuasion‘s resolution; Mr Allen bringing Catherine Morland to Bath). There’s also the horse bought for Fanny’s health being taken over by Mary Crawford giving her frequent proximity to Edmund; Mary Musgrove’s son’s broken arm enabling Anne to defer seeing Capt Wentworth; Louisa Musgrove’s fall guiding Wentworth’s to see Anne’s capability versus that of others; the late Mrs Tilney’s illness and Catherine’s imaginative suspicions resulting in a lesson for her; Jane Bennet’s stay at Netherfield putting the sisters further in the way of Bingley and Darcy; Marianne Dashwood’s ankle injury introducing her to Willoughby.
  • As a change agent: Tom Bertram became more responsible after his illness; Marianne Dashwood displayed more ‘sense’ and responsibility after her near-death attributable to her foolishness; Catherine Morland as mentioned above.
  • As a defense or response to powerlessness: Fanny’s headaches; Mrs Bennet’s nerves; Lady Bertram’s invalidism.
  • Caused by others: Fanny’s headaches, attributable to Mrs Norris’ treatment of her; Jane Fairfax, attributable to Frank’s behaviour.

Specific characters

Louisa Musgrove

Book coverThe member choosing Louisa Musgrove did so because she loves Persuasion, the image of the Cobb and its role in the novel. Louisa’s fall, she said, is such a significant moment. Louisa and Wentworth had been behaving with reckless abandon, then Louisa falls. She is punished for her wilfulness and sexuality. It also eventually brings Wentworth to his senses. It enables Anne to shine, which Wentworth sees. Wentworth also sees Mr Elliot’s admiration for Anne.

The fall also brings Benwick into the picture, and, overall we are introduced to the value of naval men. (We learn that they suffer a lot, and see suffering, in the course of their duty.) Benwick and Louisa falling in love frees Wentworth to reconsider where his love truly lies.

Overall, the novel exposes the fragility of life, death, the limited medical care available at the time, the effect of accidents on life, and the resourcefulness of women as healers. This event is the closest, suggested our member, that Austen comes to melodrama.

Mrs Bennet

Book coverTwo members looked at Mrs Bennet. Our first member commenced by saying how Austen uses her as a comic character. We laugh at her, and this is how many of the adaptations portray her. But is Austen also saying something about women of the times? She is probably only around 40, although she is usually played as much older in adaptations. She has been attractive, and is probably still so, but she no longer has power, as her daughters are the focus of attention. Her “nerves” give her power, something she has used from the beginning. Mr Bennet, for example, says

“I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”

John Wiltshire suggests she uses her nerves to reassert her sexuality. But they also show her as not in control. Our member read an article on the possibility that Mrs Bennet was undergoing menopause. Women’s main purpose was to conceive an heir. After having children they had no function, which could cause them to lose power.

Why, though, our member asked, did other similarly aged women in Austen – like Mrs Gardiner or Lady Russell – not behave this way. Some reasons could be that Mrs Gardiner had a son unlike Mrs Bennet. Also Mrs Bennet had money worries, particularly in terms of the future of her daughters (and herself) should Mr Bennet die first. If one of her children had been a boy, would she have had her nerves?

So, our member concluded, is she a great comic character or a woman of a certain age?

Our other member based her discussion on a PhD thesis by Annette Upfal which looked at Austen and the nervous temperament. The first chapter focused on Mrs Austen and Mrs Bennet. It suggests that Austen based Mrs Bennet on her mother. Upfal agues that Mrs Austen suffered “hysteria” as it was called at that time, and that there is evidence in Mrs Austen’s life for this illness. Mrs Austen married down, and suffered a number of possible disappointments, such as multiple moves, financial problems. Upfal suggested that, given she lived until she was 87, Mrs Austen’s illnesses were largely psychosomatic, using her illness to manipulate. Mrs Austen may have been jealous of Jane and her relationship with her father. Much of this could also be applied to Mrs Bennet.

Mary Musgrove

Two members looked at the oft-maligned Mary Musgrove, to try to understand (and perhaps defend) her, and to look at her role.

Our first member found Diane Driedger’s article which looked at Austen’s invalids from the perspective of one who’s been an invalid herself. She interprets Mary Musgrove as suffering Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (See discussion  below.)

The other member noted that Mary M is “often a little unwell”, but receives little attention from her husband, who “never seemed much affected by her occasional lowness”. Anne’s visits and presence often cure her.

Mary feels neglected, and recovers quickly after good times, such as parties. Her ailments “lessened in having a constant companion.” When not “indisposed”, she has “great good humour and excellent spirits.” However, we rarely see these qualities. After her son’s fall she wheedles her way to go out to dinner. She gushes over Mr Elliot. She is no use after Louisa’s fall but inconveniences people by arguing that she should stay to care for Louisa, which enables Austen to put Captain Wentworth and Anne together in the coach back. Her real role, our member argued, was to act as a foil for Anne.

New (?) ways of seeing characters

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Mansfield ParkOne member read Driedger’s article which suggested that Lady Bertram and perhaps Mary Musgrove suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Lady Bertram is presented as an invalid, which Driedger defines as a person whose physical condition was not fixable. Lady Bertram lies on the couch most days and evenings, her languor appearing very much like a person with chronic fatigue. She is accused of being uncaring and indolent, but this is how people with CFS are often perceived. Yet, she is productive, directing family activities from the couch. Is pug her “therapy dog”, Driedger asks! In terms of the novel, our member suggested, Lady Bertram’s illness enables Aunt Norris to meddle in and mess up people’s lives.

When we first meet Mary Musgrove she is lying on a couch. Anne wonders why she is well one day, sick the next, but Driedger argues that this is typical of CFS. People, she argued, find it hard to understand this sort of behaviour, and so, in Mary’s case, she is often not invited on outings because she’s presumed to be ill. Chronic Fatigue, said our member, can also negatively affect patients’ cognitive ability.

All this was an interesting theory, but the meeting participants found it hard to support. Why would Austen create genuinely ill but clearly unsympathetic characters? (Or is Austen describing characters from her time, not knowing they were ill?) Why does Lady Bertram suddenly recover when her son Tom gets better?

Melancholia and Nervous disorders

Another member became interested in the condition of melancholia which rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also ended up reading parts of Upfal’s thesis, along with other sources. Upfal noted in her introduction, that melancholia was associated with intellect and creative genius in men but instability and uncontrolled passions in women.

Book coverOur member explored examples of melancholia in several of Austen’s novels, including Sense and sensibility. Searching the novel’s text on “melancholy”, she saw an interesting correlation appearing between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, two characters who had always seemed chalk-and-cheese. However, on many occasions in the novel, Brandon is described in terms of being melancholic. And so, while Marianne’s illness, brought on by her melancholic nature, brings her together with Brandon, our member asked whether it was his familiarity with melancholy which enabled him to endear himself to her? The irony could then be that Marianne may eventually have recognised his likeness to her, flannel waistcoat notwithstanding.

When Brandon suddenly quits the company because of a crisis with his ward, Mrs Jennings suggests that “Something very melancholy must be the matter”, though she thinks it’s business.

When Marianne is anxiously waiting for Willoughby in London, and Brandon visits, Austen writes:

Elinor, who was convinced that solicitude for Marianne brought him thither, and who saw that solicitude in his disturbed and melancholy look, and in his anxious though brief inquiry after her …

And, when Brandon visits the sick Marianne, Elinor

soon discovered in his melancholy eye and varying complexion as he looked at her sister, the probable recurrence of many past scenes of misery to his mind, …

Rodríguez discusssed sadness or melancholia in Persuasion‘s Anne Eliot suggesting she is different from other heroines because she is melancholic, resigned, sad. This could be due to Austen’s own circumstances at the time but she also relates it to the rise of Melancholia in the 19th century. She looks at the strictures of Conduct Books which dictated that women not be melancholic or sad, that it is inappropriate for women to be sad, that joy should be their demeanour, and suggests that Anne “rebels against all modeling of women”. Admittedly, Anne, feels shame for being so sad:

she was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle, but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover it.

Rodríguez concludes that Austen “claims in Persuasion that sadness is also part of women’s lives and that it fulfils an essential function. Sadness reduces attention in the external world to focus on the inside. This favors self-examination, reflection, analysis. Anne goes through a complete exploration of her own knowledge of herself throughout the novel, and in a way that few Austen’s other heroines do. Anne was not just Anne, Anne shows us her act of bravery by letting us know that sadness is just another emotion. It is the emotion that most leads us to intimacy with ourselves and with others.”


Diane Driedger, Jane Austen and me: Tales from the couch (2017) (for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Rosario Mesta Rodríguez, She was only Anne – On Anne Elliot in Persuasion, 22 March 2019

Annette Upfal, Jane Austen and the nervous temperament (2104, PhD thesis) (for Mrs Bennet and Mrs Austen, and Melancholia and nervous disorders)

John Wiltshire, Jane Austen and the body: ‘The picture of health’ (1992) (for Mrs Bennet, Louisa Musgrove)

Present: 7 members

June 2018 meeting: Medical matters and the erotic in Jane Austen

June 17, 2018

Prepared by member Jenny.

There was definitely a sense of bafflement around this topic originating from an absent member in relation to John Wiltshire’s Jane Austen and The Body and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain about people suffering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Unfortunately, none of us had had the chance to read either of these books.

In our researches we tapped into John Wiltshire’s “Medicine, Illness and Disease, Medicine during the Regency: Ten Interesting Facts, and Solitary Rambles and Stifling Sick Rooms and Gender in Jane Austen’s Fiction, the meaning of the word “fever”, and Parson Woodford’s diary in Jane Austen’s England.

We found it hard to find eroticism in the sickroom with one member deciding that it was the lack of eroticism or the failure of relationships that brought on sickness, except in the case of Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick. Anne trying to make sense of their engagement, realises: that the couple “had been thrown together several weeks…they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, Louisa just recovering from illness had been in an interesting state and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable.”

It would appear that Willoughby in rescuing Marianne, and Wentworth in assisting the tired Anne Elliott, were both responding to “maidens in distress” which could be considered erotic.

Jane Austen, EmmaHowever when we discovered that the word fever originally meant heated, restless or intense nervous excitement, it became apparent that there was a relationship between the fever of sickness and the fever evoked by love. Jane Austen uses the word “fever” in several of her books to convey disturbances to the mind caused by upset and/or passion and/or love, as in these examples:

As long as Mr. Knightley remained with them, Emma’s fever continued; but when he was gone, she began to be a little tranquillized and subdued … (Emma, Ch. 50, Emma just after Mr Knightley’s proposal)


He found he could not be useful, and his feelings were too much irritated for talking. That he might not be irritated into an absolute fever, by the fire which Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year, he soon afterwards took a hasty leave, and walked home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey. (Emma, Ch. 40, Mr Knightley, after Emma discounts his suspicions about Frank and Jane)


It seemed as if her eyes were suddenly opened, and she were enabled to see that Mr. Elton was not the superior creature she had believed him. The fever was over, and Emma could harbour little fear of the pulse being quickened again … (Emma, Ch. 39, Emma on Harriet getting over Mr Elton)


They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love. It was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some. (Persuasion, Ch. 10, Anne on Louisa, Henrietta and Captain Wentworth)

Another fever was evoked by pure fear in the days of early 19th century medicine.

We found that in Jane Austen’s day there were few hospitals and no medical school training. To become physicians it was necessary to translate passages from a 1st century medical text, physicians did not do anything with their hands, as that was ungentlemanly and had to diagnose through hypothesis. Apothecaries prepared medicines or cordials and gave medical advice, surgeons were, of course, originally barbers. You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.

In the country, medical help was hard to come by. Thus many women, like Mrs Heywood in Sanditon, learned basic nursing skills to care for their families. Martha Lloyd, Jane’s friend, collected home remedies, in a book, which we wished we could have read. One member had seen said book on the Antiques Road Show.

Violent blood-letting may well have been the cause of countless deaths after battle including that of Byron’s, suffering from a feverish cold.

We concluded that Mrs Jennings’ offering of Constantia as a cure was possibly preferable to many of the alternatives. In fact, the state of medicine at the time filled us all with horror. Even early efforts to inoculate against smallpox sounded rather ghastly not to mention implanting other people’s teeth in your gums.

Wiltshire maintained that “illness may serve as an unconscious mode of salvaging self-respect or gaining social leverage.”(Wiltshire J.A.12) This idea certainly fits Marianne, Jane Fairfax and possibly Mrs Smith. He also believed that in Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse and Mary Musgrove suffering malaises of the leisured class can also “signal, and are a conversion of, frustration, including sexual frustration, and the need to obtain control of some sort.” Did Mrs Austen also fit this explanation?

Kelly Bryan Smith posits in her essay that the sickroom becomes a place where socially unacceptable behaviour was modified to conform to patriarchal norms in Jane Austen’s novels. She cites the examples of Tom Bertram, Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove, all of whom undergo fundamental personality change possibly due to the influence of those who nurse them. Tom is nursed by Edmund and later Fanny, Marianne by Elinor, and Louisa by Fanny Harville. Much reading to the sick took place.

We decided that the word “fever” preceded many psychological definitions of later times. However the mystery of the erotic appeal of the sick somehow escaped us. Perhaps it was the wisdom to be gleaned from the sickroom to which we should have attended.